Film Review: “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”

by Jason LeRoy on August 25, 2011


starring: Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison

written by: Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins

directed by: Troy Nixey

MPAA: Rated R for violence and terror

The title of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark will immediately remind any ’90s child of Nickelodeon’s ultra-creepy Saturday night series, Are You Afraid of the Dark? And like that landmark of spooky kids entertainment, this film seems better-suited for a younger audience. Not that you’d know that from the marketing; all we see are repeated references to the brilliant Guillermo del Toro, who produced and co-wrote the film (the directing duties went to first-time feature helmer Troy Nixey). And while del Toro’s somewhat similar masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth, showed that a film with a little girl protagonist could still be grown-up scary, Don’t Be Afraid doesn’t begin to approach that film’s level of horror, violence or creativity. Despite its ludicrous and unwarranted R-rating (which I can only assume is because of a disturbing prologue which is unrivaled by anything that follows), this is, at best, a kid-scary film.

The setup is rife with overly familiar tropes: Sally (Bailee Madison) is a troubled little girl forced to move into a Gothic old mansion because her father, Alex (Guy Pearce), and his girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), are restoring it in the hopes of snagging an Architectural Digest cover. Sally is distant from her father and resentful of Kim, but has been dumped into their care because her mother didn’t want to deal with her behavioral issues anymore. Everything about the mansion is immediately and obviously creepy, from the ominous decor to the haunted, watchful house staff. And if that wasn’t enough to spook little Sally, her father decorates her room with such ghastly knick-knacks as a talking bear and a rotating nightlight that projects long, stretching silhouettes of horses on the walls while tinkling like an ancient music box. It gets to the point where it seems like they’re just trying to fuck with her.

But whatever, Sally isn’t exactly the sharpest tack in the box. This girl has never met a strange noise she wouldn’t follow into the woods and investigate. And most stupidly of all, when an unambiguously sinister voice begins beckoning to her from the basement, she somehow interprets it as a new friend to play with. This girl deserves everything she gets. And of course, that almost laughably evil whisper coming from the basement is not a new friend, but rather a legion of tiny gremlin-rat creatures that feed on human bones and children’s teeth. Finding this film frightening will depend almost entirely on your response to these creatures once they are glimpsed. I personally found them kinda cute, with all their scurrying and squeaking. So that pretty much ruined the scare factor for me.

Bailee Madison, a remarkably hard-working 11-year-old actor who has already amassed 28 acting credits since her first appearance in 2006, is impressive and well-cast as Sally. At first she bears a passing resemblance to Suri Cruise, which gives her scenes opposite Katie Holmes an added dimension. As for Holmes, who at one point was a highly promising actor (The Ice Storm, Wonder Boys, Pieces of April) before signing up to become a Scientology war bride, I can only assume she was drawn to this project because of its anti-psychiatry subtext (rather than taking Sally’s claims seriously, her father instead chooses to up the dosage on her meds).

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a tame, old-fashioned “evil house” creature feature. It is del Toro for kids. Unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, which took similar plot elements and elevated them to a place of astonishing transcendence, this feels more like an uninspired rehash.


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